Aid workers brave bullets to rescue Syrian civilians
Aid workers braved mortar and small arms fire to evacuate Syrian civilians from a besieged area of the city of Homs yesterday, tenuously keeping alive a deal seen as central to the peace talks that resume in Geneva today.
Several hundred women, children and elderly men were brought out of the Old City in Homs on the third and final day of a supposed ceasefire, brokered by the United Nations.
Talal Barazi, the province's governor, said 420 "besieged people" were rescued.
A deal to bring some civilians out of the Old City – and allow essential aid to enter – was struck in principle at the Geneva peace talks last month.
The details of a three-day truce were only agreed last week.
In the event, the ceasefire was broken on two of the three days. On Saturday and yesterday, aid workers from the UN and volunteers in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) came under mortar and sniper fire. These breaches of the ceasefire cost up to nine civilian lives and saw dozens wounded.
Video footage appeared to show the flash and boom of mortar rounds slamming into the ground just meters from an aid convoy.
The bombardment destroyed two trucks and killed five civilians who had left their homes to receive food and medical supplies.
"I don't care about Geneva. But I am using whatever chance I can to get aid to those poor people [inside the siege]," said Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations for Sarc.
"Any sane person would have cancelled the operation after yesterday [Saturday]. But we know there are people in need inside."
Yesterday, aid workers tried again to enter the Old City, and again came under heavy fire.
Video footage showed hundreds of people, dishevelled and gaunt after 600 days of living under siege, shuffling over debris along a street devastated by fighting.
They headed towards UN vehicles that had arrived to evacuate them.
A mortar exploded close by, causing the civilians to run in panic towards the armoured UN vehicles, with some jumping inside head first.
In a statement that cannot be independently confirmed, opposition activists said four civilians were killed as they waited to be evacuated.
Vehicles brought small amounts of aid into the Old City, but the trucks carrying larger quantities were unable to enter.
The Syrian government delegation, led again by Walid Muallem, the foreign minister, has arrived in Geneva for the talks due to restart today.
Lakhdar Barhimi, the chief UN negotiator, hopes this round will focus on finding a solution to the conflict. But the failure to maintain the Homs ceasefire shows the enormity of the challenge.
One aid worker said the shelling on the Old City came from a district of Homs that is staunchly loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The source blamed the National Defence Force (NDF), a pro-regime militia.
The Syrian government built up the NDF as a volunteer army. However, reports suggest the regime is now losing control of it. NDF Facebook pages denounced the ceasefire and the decision to allow aid into the Old City, arguing that it would "feed the terrorists".
The Syrian opposition representatives in Geneva have been criticised for having no real control over rebel groups.
"We are saying to all the parties: leash your subordinates," added Mr Erksoussi.
About 2,000 civilians remain trapped inside the besieged area last night.
Mr Erksoussi said that less than half of the assigned quantity of food had been delivered to the Old City. (© Daily Telegraph, London)